DETROIT (AP) — Thousands of Detroit Tigers fans lined up outside Comerica Park Thursday to give beloved broadcaster Ernie Harwell the send-off he wanted, paying their respects as they shuffled past his casket and swapping their favorite memories of the Hall of Famer.
After waiting for more than eight hours, Westland resident Bud Sommerville entered the stadium's front gate and approached Harwell's open casket. He took some pictures of Harwell, who was dressed in his signature hat, then removed his own cap and placed it on his heart in a solemn farewell.
"I met him for the first time at the ballpark," Sommerville, 54, said as he held back tears. "I guess the last time I will see him is at the ballpark."
Harwell, considered by many Tigers fans to be the voice of summer, died Tuesday of cancer at age 92. Planning for Thursday's public viewing began in September after Harwell was diagnosed with an inoperable form of the disease, Tigers General Manager Dave Dombrowski said. Harwell's attorney and friend Gary Spicer invited Dombrowski and Tigers owner Mike Ilitch to Harwell's home, and Harwell asked to have the viewing at Comerica Park so fans could come.
"You can see that it didn't make a difference what age, what color, what religion — you were touched by Ernie," said Dombrowski, who greeted mourners after they paid their respects.
"There were so many people that said, 'I never met him but I knew him.'"
Harwell's casket was placed near a life-sized statue of the Hall of Fame broadcaster, microphone in hand, with the inscription, "The Tigers' broadcasting legend and masterful storyteller for 42 seasons."
Sommerville said he arrived at the ballpark before midnight to ensure he'd be first in line to pay tribute to a man he said "treated you like he knew you forever."
He fondly recalled Harwell inviting him and his two sons into the broadcast booth at Tiger Stadium in 1999 just before his oldest son shipped off to Saudi Arabia with the Air Force.
Sister Deborah Ciolek, a 56-year-old nun with the Franciscan Sisters of St. Joseph, said she came to honor Harwell's memory and that of her father, who passed along to her his love of baseball.
"I was one of the guilty ones who had the radio in the bed listening to the West coast games at night, even falling asleep," Ciolek said.
She said Harwell's "soothing, gentle voice" reminded her of her dad and she praised the broadcaster's love of God, family and the game.
He was "truly an inspiration," she said. "The voice of summer, the voice of the Tigers — I guess we can say that Ernie is our Tiger."
Across the street, the marquee of the Fox Theatre read: "Thanks for the memories Ernie." Other venues nearby had similar public messages.
Inside the ballpark, some mourners knelt, others made the sign of the cross, while many snapped photos and removed their old English "D'' caps while standing in front of the casket.
Dombrowski said he heard many great Harwell anecdotes from fans on Thursday, but one stood out: A man too shy to ask his girlfriend to marry him told Dombrowski that Harwell proposed for him over dinner.
A half hour after the viewing began, the cool morning air was filled with plaintive tones of a trumpet outside the stadium, pointed in Harwell's direction, playing taps.
"I've been listening to him forever. I just felt like I needed to do it," said Bill Ebbitt, 58, of Garden City.
The Tigers said the viewing would continue until the last fan had said goodbye. By early Thursday afternoon, more than 4,000 people came through the gate, Tigers spokesman Ron Colangelo said, and Spicer said the total was 6,500 at 7 p.m. as the line still stretched around the block.
Family members will hold a private funeral service and burial Friday, according to Spicer.
The Tigers plan a tribute to Harwell before Monday's game against the New York Yankees.